Rethink full membership of CARICOM to make it effective


By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States.   He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are entirely his own)

Almost 80 years ago, Jamaica’s Norman Manley asked a question that has been echoing throughout the 12 independent English-Speaking Caribbean countries that form the Caribbean Community  (CARICOM).

He asked: “are we satisfied to be obscure nonentities in a world where only larger groupings have the chance of survival and success?”.  That question has haunted the minds of West Indians ever since. For, in answer to it, the West Indies chose not the path to a “West Indian nation standing shoulder to shoulder with all other nations of the world”, which he advocated, but the road to small, weak countries in a world where to be small is to be unimportant and to be weak is to be ignored.

The present 14 independent countries of CARICOM proclaim that they are collectively a ‘Community of Sovereign States’.  More often than not in their relations with each other, and in their hemispheric and global affairs, it is their sovereignty that they exercise, not their community.  Consequently, each of them has remained small, weak and inconsequential in global affairs.

This weakness has caused them to compromise the very ‘sovereignty’ to which they cling against each other, by entering client relationships with richer and more powerful countries.  These relations are always subject specific and serve the convenience of the powerful countries.  They produce no changes in the structural environment that entraps CARICOM countries. Such benefits, as are proffered, give little and do much to increase their dependency.

This situation was already a problem in the 12 English-speaking countries before CARICOM decided to widen its membership, rather than deepen economic and political integration among themselves.

Influential leaders in Jamaica had long answered Noman Manley’s question by deciding that the country’s future did not lie with CARICOM, except as a market for Jamaican goods and services, and, these days, for some of its migrants.  Of all its leaders since Norman Manley, P J Patterson, emerged as the greatest CARICOM disciple and advocate, though not without ambivalence in his own party and fierce resistance from traditional thought-leaders in the Jamaica Labour Party.  Jamaica’s unsureness about CARICOM served to slow, rather than to accelerate its cohesion, including on foreign policy issues.

The Bahamas chose to join the ‘Community’ but not the ‘Common Market’, opting to participate only in limited areas of functional cooperation but not in the free movement of goods, services and people, and not obliging itself to take shared foreign policy positions.

Closer to Miami than it is to any CARICOM country, and with the greatest portion of its trade in goods and services with the US, the Bahamas position is understandable.  However, its equivocation on standing with the majority of CARICOM states, when it considers its own interests dictate other alliances, has deprived CARICOM of the decisiveness that it should display.  If the Bahamas were an ‘Associated State’ of CARICOM, its current position would be more correctly represented, giving it opportunities for benefits from functional cooperation, without restraining foreign policy decision-making.

Haiti and Suriname were brought into the CARICOM fold, even as these uncertainties were evident.

Suriname, despite the language barrier and different legal system, has become an enthusiastic member of CARICOM, recognizing the benefits of collaboration with its closest neighbours.

In Haiti’s case, it never became wholly a member of CARICOM.  Many of the rules of the organisation do not apply to Haiti, whose governments have tended to regard membership of the organization as a necessary convenience while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on France – the original colonial power – the United States and Canada which are the destinations for their migrants, legal and illegal, and the sources of aid.  In its foreign policy decision-making, Haiti finds it difficult to pursue different paths from Canada, France and the US.

Haiti’s position is also understandable.  Its endemic economic problems cannot be solved by CARICOM whose principal role can only be to advocate for Haiti’s interests internationally.  However, given these circumstances, Haiti’s necessary alignments can restrain CARICOM from making decisions that are based on unanimity.

It might have been better for Haiti also to be an ‘Associate State’ in CARICOM where it could benefit from the functional aspects of the organisation, without being constrained by, or constraining, other member states.

Adherents to the purist theology of an integrated Caribbean, despite the obvious impediments that patently exist, and which delay the deepening of the CARICOM arrangements, will regard this commentary as heresy.  But, in a world, where experience shows the impracticalities of pursuing the ambitions of the CARICOM Treaty, in the present irresolution, rethinking is necessary.

Recognition of a weak CARICOM, brought about by reluctant participation of some members, was evident in the report of the CARICOM Commission on the Economy which proposed “a mechanism of ‘enhanced cooperation’ where a group of no less than five member states can move ahead with closer integration on a CARICOM Single Market and Economy matter, as long as the others do not object and are free to join at any point later. We believe that in the area of greater economic integration an ‘enhanced cooperation mechanism’ will overcome paralysis, where progress may be blocked by just one country or a small group of countries”.  But, not even on that recommendation has CARICOM been able to move forward.

It is time to re-think the integration project, based on practical realities.  The answers the region has been given to Norman Manley’s question require us to move ahead to reform and strengthen CARICOM so that its committed member states might try collectively “to stand shoulder to shoulder with all other nations of the world”.

Maybe if a smaller group could achieve success in greater cohesion and coherence, the others will recognize value and act to be a convinced part of it. But pretending that all is well helps none.

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